Jose Belo, Dili – Timor-Leste's former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao returned home in triumph on March 11 with a new maritime treaty with Australia, but warned the battle to win a favorable oil and gas deal with the country's giant neighbor remained far from over.
Gusmao, who left Timor-Leste as head of the country's negotiating team back in September, signed a deal on a maritime boundary with Australia in New York on March 6. It ended a longstanding dispute over rights to oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
The treaty gives Asia's most Catholic country – and one of its poorest – the lion's share of future revenue from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, worth an estimated US$53 billion.
Gusmao was greeted by several ministers at the airport and by cheering crowds, thousands of whom lined the streets to the capital Dili, shouting "Viva Xanana Gusmao."
Speaking later in Dili, Gusmao thanked the crowd for the welcome and said most of the credit belonged to his negotiating team.
"I have to confess here that my role in this process was very little. For me more importantly we have to thank our lawyers and all the team members defending our rights."
However, he said another battle had to be won if the country was to reap the full benefits from the oil and gas reserves.
Ongoing negotiations between the two countries and the energy syndicate of Australia's Woodside, American energy firm ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell remain in the balance over whether the gas or oil will be processed in Darwin or on the south coast of Timor-Leste, where a new energy hub is being developed.
If that happens in Darwin, Timor-Leste will get 80 percent of the revenues but if in Timor, only 70 percent.
Dili wants the pipeline to go to its energy hub and envisions it will create many jobs and potentially generate tens of billions of dollars in development which would in turn spur better education and health care, as well as improve national infrastructure.
"Our war is not over yet so we have to continue our struggle because we will not allow anyone to take our wealth from us," he said.
"We have achieved an important victory but we will continue to fight for the deal that still remains on the table [a pipeline to the country's south coast]. I am confident that all Timorese will keep praying to our God Almighty to help us," he said.
Last week he accused Australia, the U.N. and energy companies of colluding to have oil and gas processed in Darwin in scathing letter to the U.N.-backed Conciliation Commission.
"The commission instead opted for the easiest way out, which is a shame as in my perception it reveals a lack of impartiality on your behalf!" Gusmao's letter said. "Australia's offer may appear generous [but]... it amounts to around a week's worth of revenue," he wrote.
The issue could become a major election issue in the upcoming May 10 national poll. Gusmao is expected to lead the opposition campaigning against the minority government led by his long-time rival Mari Alkatiri.